We might as well get used to the idea: Indoor dining doesn’t look like it’s going to be returning to San Francisco for a while. Just a few weeks ago, the city’s restaurants had July 13 marked down on as the targeted reopening date — that is until COVID-19 spikes around California brought the state’s reopening plans to a grinding halt.
And so, restaurants that are at least able to serve guests outside are adapting their menus for the long haul: If outdoor dining is the only kind of service that’s going to be allowed for quite some time, chefs want to make sure their food is going to taste good under those conditions. They’re making all kinds of menu tweaks — setting up grills on top of picnic tables, swapping in room temperature–friendly items, and, in at least one case, declaring war against windswept herbs.
At the Vault, a vast new outdoor dining space — dubbed the Vault Garden — is the rare example of a restaurant that was designed specifically to account for the pandemic. As Eater SF previously reported, chef Robin Song created the menu with the city’s breezy summer weather in mind: lots of cold and room-temperature dishes that taste good even after they’ve been chilled by the afternoon wind — an issue, Song notes, that’s exacerbated by the fact that the kitchen is a solid five-minute walk away from the dining area.
Most of Song’s adaptations remove a fine-dining staple: the carefully tweezered fresh green herbs — an addition that isn’t very attractive, Song notes, if the herbs wind up blowing away. And so, the chef has essentially enacted a ban on garnishes at the Vault Garden, replacing them with an arsenal of herb-infused oils and purees. Song cites as an example a salad with stone fruit, smoked ricotta, and walnut shortbread. Normally it’s the kind of dish the chef would scatter a ton of fresh herbs on top, but he decided instead to serve the salad in a pool of basil oil with dots of mint puree on top — an approach that has the added benefit of providing even more flavor. “You don’t see any herbs, but it eats herbaceous and fresh,” he says.
Two other examples of Song’s wind-proof fare: baked clams with housemade XO sauce, garlic chives, and fennel — the latter two ingredients put through a juicer instead of getting sliced up and sprinkled on top — and a tomato-and-burrata dish that pulls the same trick with juiced garlic chives. “It gives color and freshness that would look silly if it all flew away with the wind,” Song says.
Meanwhile, at Besharam, Heena Patel’s stylish Gujarati restaurant — and Eater SF’s 2019 Restaurant of the Year — it’s the cold temperatures rather than the wind itself that is the chef’s primary concern for sidewalk diners. She, too, has remade her menu with the outdoor dining experience in mind. “I can’t control how the guests feel, or even how many will come,” Patel says. “The only thing I can control is how whatever I put on the menu will bring them comfort and joy.”
Part of providing comfort, she says, is not serving food that only tastes good when it’s very hot. On her current menu, Patel serves a kind of Gujarati steamed dumpling, filled with opa squash, known as dudhi muthiya, which she’d normally pair with a shot of hot chai — a beverage that would never stay warm outdoors. So, instead, Patel spoons an Indian take on chimichurri on top of the dumplings, adding a weather-proof jolt of spice and fresh herbal flavor. It’s the same rationale she used for the Gujarati salad platter, a colorful mix of grilled summer vegetables. Rather than serving it with her first-choice condiment — a mango curry that, frankly, wouldn’t taste great after it got cold after sitting outside for 10 minutes — she went instead with a raita infused with gunpowder spice.
One of the most appealing outdoor dining adaptations wasn’t that much of an adaptation at all: At Um.ma, the hip Korean restaurant in the Sunset, Los Angeles–based chef-owner Chris Oh took the kind of tabletop grilling you’d find at any typical Korean barbecue spot and ... simply moved it outside to the restaurant’s back patio.
Prior to the pandemic, Um.ma served barbecue out of its kitchen, but it wasn’t ever a DIY grill spot. But letting people grill outdoors during this time of social distancing made sense on a number of levels: Customers familiar with Korean barbecue can usually manage to take care of the grilling all on their own, minimizing the amount of prolonged contact with servers. Meanwhile, having a blistering-hot stone grill, placed atop a butane burner right at the table, might be the best antidote to what might be the biggest deterrent to outdoor dining out in the Sunset: the cold, foggy weather.
Plus, Oh says, “Korean barbecue, in my opinion, is best served al fresco. Everything tastes better with the wind in your hair.”
Which isn’t to say that outdoor Korean barbecue restaurants are commonplace — in fact, Oh doesn’t know of any others in California. Backyard grilling, on the other hand, is a huge part of Korean and Korean-American food culture, and that’s the vibe Oh says he’s trying to recreate at Um.ma. Servers lay out a spread of marinated meats (kalbi, bugolgi, and gochujang-honey pork belly are the current options), side dishes, and other accoutrements, and — unless they need assistance — the customers handle the rest.
“We’re not reinventing the wheel,” Oh says. “We’re doing Korean barbecue in a cool backyard.”